Washington's National Gallery of Art on Monday said it will return a 16th century Flemish oil painting to the heirs of a Jewish family, from whom the Nazis looted it sometime before 1941.
It is the latest instance of a U.S. museum voluntarily returning artwork seized during the Holocaust, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), which has been urging U.S. institutions to give back artwork stolen by the Nazis that somehow wound up in American hands.
The move to return the painting to the Stern family of Paris comes weeks before a U.S. presidential commission is to recommend what to do with "innumerable other looted works of art yet to be discovered and certainly yet to be returned," Steinberg said.
The National Gallery, one of the nation's top art museums, said the painting, "Still Life with Fruit and Game," had probably been confiscated by Hitler's second-in-command, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, sometime before German art dealer Karl Haberstock acquired it in 1941.
"By mutual agreement, the gallery is arranging to return the painting to the authorized representative of the Stern family, who learned about the provenance from the gallery's Web site (www.nga.gov)," the museum said in a statement.
It did not identify the Stern heir to whom the painting would be returned and officials were not immediately available for further comment.
The painting, by Frans Snyders, was grabbed by the Nazis from the Stern collection in Paris and apparently changed hands several times after Haberstock got it. By 1945, the art dealer was known to have given the painting to Baron von Poellnitz.
Herman Shickman bought "Still Life with Fruit and Game" from von Poellnitz in 1968, eventually donating it to the museum in 1990 in honor of its 50th anniversary.
NAZI CODE "ST" FOR "STERN"
The museum said its trustees decided to return the painting after reviewing the history of its ownership and checking its dimensions, which turned out to be nearly identical to those of the Snyders painting.
It also noted that the Nazis had assigned the code "ST" to the Stern collection from which a Snyders painting was taken and wrote this code on the backs of the confiscated pictures.
The Gallery's painting has "ST" written on the stretcher, and the mark is in style similar to the marks on the back of other Stern pictures.
Steinberg said the origin of the Snyders painting - and the gap in its provenance - was originally uncovered by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.
"The information developed made it very clear that indeed it was looted," he said.
The Gallery's decision to voluntarily return the painting "demonstrates the ongoing integrity of U.S. governmental and cultural institutions when it comes to facing the difficult question of providing justice for Holocaust-era claimants," Steinberg said.
He cited other cases in which U.S. art museums voluntarily gave back looted artwork, including the Denver Art Museum's decision in September to return a looted 17th century painting by Dutch artist Gerard Terborch to the heirs of a man killed in a German concentration camp.